Challenges ahead for policy on digital communications

By Rahul Goel, Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas

Technology is changing and so is the way we live and communicate. As information and communications technology evolves, the policy and regulatory structure must also change, to enable people to access newer, emerging technologies. This is an important factor for sustained economic growth.

Rahul GoelPartnerCyril Amarchand Mangaldas
Rahul Goel
Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas

In tune with the above, India’s Department of Telecommunications recently released the Draft National Digital Communications Policy – 2018, to act as a guidance note for licensing and regulatory changes in the digital communications sector, so as to facilitate access to technologies and convergence.

The draft policy makes clear the requirement to improve terms and conditions for “other service providers”, and further suggests establishing a unified policy framework and spectrum management regime. It proposes to simplify the Guidelines for Mergers and Acquisitions, 2014, in the telecom sector, enable the fast-tracking of approvals and establish exit norms for licensees including alignment with the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code.

The draft policy also proposes to reduce licensing and regulatory compliance requirements through differential licensing of the infrastructure, network, services and application layers. To ease doing business in India, it advocates a light-touch regulatory regime for services such as over-the-top, cloud computing, data centres, etc.

The draft policy suggests establishment of a National Broadband Mission and improvement of the telecom infrastructure especially by encouraging the sharing of active infrastructure (giving infrastructure providers more scope and enabling infrastructure convergence of the IT, telecom and broadcasting sectors). It also recommends accelerated right-of-way permissions for telecom towers and fiscal incentives to encourage investment in broadband infrastructure.

To reduce the cost of international bandwidth, it proposes rationalizing access charges to facilitate the setting up of international cable landing stations. Pricing the spectrum to make it affordable is suggested to optimize availability and use of the spectrum.

The draft policy envisages attracting investment of US$100 billion in the digital communication sector. To catalyse this, it proposes to review licence fees, Universal Service Obligation Fund levies, spectrum usage charges, etc.
The draft policy addresses major concerns to enable India to prosper as part of the global digital economy, and also offers an opportunity for the government to bring in much needed fundamental changes required by the Indian telecom sector.

The draft policy stresses the need for a roadmap for the use of emerging technologies in the communications sector. It states that in order to ensure a holistic and harmonized approach for harnessing emerging technologies, the government needs to leverage artificial intelligence and big data to enhance the overall quality of service, spectrum management, network security and reliability.

To enable innovation, the draft policy calls for implementing recommendations in the National Intellectual Property Rights Policy, making it simpler to obtain experimental licences and reducing entry barriers for startups. The draft policy also recommends strict compliance with preferential market access requirements for procurement of domestically produced telecom products.

Emphasizing the safety and security of data, the draft policy envisages establishing a comprehensive data protection regime for digital communications that safeguards privacy, autonomy and choice of individuals and facilitates India’s effective participation in the global digital economy.

The draft policy proposes the development of security standards for equipment and devices; participation in global standard-setting organizations to ensure consideration of the needs of India’s information and communications industries; and formulating policy on encryption and data retention. It proposes developing a comprehensive plan for network preparedness, disaster response relief, restoration and reconstruction of communications networks.

To fulfil the Digital India dream, the country requires a stable, predictable, innovation and investment friendly regulatory and policy environment. The draft policy has tried to address several key concerns with a clear objective of facilitating and propelling economic and technological growth and investment. However, the objectives and their implementation cannot be achieved entirely by the government but will require the participation of private players as well.

Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas is India’s largest full-service law firm. Rahul Goel is a partner at the firm.

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